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Brighton Fringe 2019

Jonathan Powell Recital St Michael’s and All Angels Brighton

Jonathan Powell

Genre: Live Music, Music, Solo Performance

Venue: St Michael’s and All Angels


Low Down

Jonathan Powell plays Enrique the complete Granados’ Goyescas, and Karol Szymanowski’s Metopes Op 29, Masques Op 34 and Mazurkas Op 62, as well as a British premiere of Gabriel Erkoreka’s 2019 Ballade No. 2 In Memoriam Edgard Varese. And two Mompou encores from Suburbias.


Jonathan Powell’s international renown doesn’t penetrate to Brighton. He should be – as all at his recital said – in the Dome. As even the organiser has put it, it’s absurd Powell’s playing at an – albeit warmly appreciative – Fringe venue.


Powell’s discography emerged first on BIS, and covers much of the huge pianistic output of Kaikhosru Sorbaji (1892-1988), whose monumental five-hour piece Opus Clavicembalisticum (1930) he performed here in 2017 (last year it was Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues Op 87 from 1951-2). Powell also records for Toccata Classics, and six albums have started with Alexander Goldenweiser (1875-1961) and cover composers even less well-known.


Powell specialises in the 19/20th century cusp, a particularly favourite area – and beyond was we’ve seen – and with contemporary music. So today’s recital is almost shockingly mainstream: you’ll still wait a long time to hear it live elsewhere though.


Powell plays Enrique Granados’ complete Goyescas, from 1912-15, and Karol Szymanowski’s Metopes Op 29, Masques Op 34 and Mazurkas Op 62, as well as the British premiere of Gabriel Erkoreka’s 2019 Ballade No. 2 In Memoriam Edgard Varese. And two Mompou encores from Suburbias.


Powell’s energetic, extremely direct and expressive dynamic range is perfectly suited. His tone colour is emphasized too so it projects, and never underplays for pseudo-effect.


Goya’s paintings obsessed Granados. A particular type, the generic sexualised Macho and Maja depictions, rather than ‘terrible’ paintings perhaps: though latterly one wonders.


Granados’ six Goyescas aren’t often played together: like other cycles they’re seen as detachable. They’re clearly unified in some ways but Granados emphasized this by turning them into that opera as a narrative.


It’s of two lovers being interrupted by a bullfighter, he challenging the new lover as he has previous with the Maja, killing him, then the lover’s ghost strumming by moonlight and vanishing, It’s now firmly embedded as meta-narrative. But that’s partly true of two latter pieces of the cycle anyway; they suggest the opera since they’re so completely embedded in that narrative.


The fourth and to an extent third are famed, and the first is particularly memorable too. The trouble lies in those last two being embedded as a cycle with quotes. They’re remarkable enough, more forward-looking than the others but also depend on context, full of musical quotations from the pervious four, so full too of a fractured sardonic pictorialism, more graphic and descriptive – of a fatal duel and a ghost’s serenade. The second markedly improves on acquaintance.


Granados deploys contrasts, Macho and Maja by turns or yin and yang, so the first, third and fifth are the more markedly extrovert for instance.


But they’re all very fine and it’s a very high bar, showing how Granados is developing in leaps towards an unknown late tonality. That’s before his absurd death from trying to save his drowning or drowned wife after a U-Boat sank the SS Sussex, having already been saved himself. He had just returned from the New York premiere of this opera Goyescas, twelve tableaus including these pieces and others, creating an opera orchestrated and scored from piano works.


I’m going to use the English titles. ‘Gallant Compliments’ is a generically rhythmic Spanish dance, which in effect it is, starting with insinuating and liltingly memorable at the start. It’s also memorably punchy, piquant and arresting as a first essay into this late style. Powell catches something of the headlong improvisatory elements of Granados’ own approach when playing, as his pianola rolls imperfectly show.


‘Conversation at the Window’ is more evanescent and hard to pin down. It’s not quite the rapt serenade – we get that later – that some defenestrated maidens enjoy. Though it’s ecstatic and at its delicate climax a kind of declaration. Tonally it’s in thrall to dance, though not harmonically so. In both these pieces the surges that inhabit all these works show through as remarkably turbulent compressed narratives. There’s a nailing slow climax that’s one of the two high-points before the work subsides into more familiar dotted rhythms and flamenco gestures; then fading again with a slow reprise.


‘Fandango By Candlelight’ is memorable too, a kind of building on the language of the Fandango again full of dotted rhythms and counter-melodies, suggesting guitars castanets and the regalia of the dance-form. It’s a famed one that Soler nailed in his eponymous work from the 1770s. It gusts in and out of registers It’s the most striking of all except:


‘The Maiden and the Nightingale’ which extraordinary lyrical raptness Powell captures but never sentimentalizes, giving it the grain of the others and a foretaste of the next two. He also emphasizes velocity where indicated and extremes of tempo nicely gradated. The climax here is astonishing, placed fourth as the emotional, indeed sexual climax of the operatic work too, despite solitude.


‘Ballad of Love and Death’ is full of striking chords portending and enacting death with quotes from the previous four of the cycle and both richer and more fractured in utterance. It’s a powerfully dramatic enactment, a kind of recitation of a duel and the sudden striking out of lifeblood draining. It’s potent, frustratingly pointing to a future Granados couldn’t take, but Manuel de Falla could.


‘Epilogue: Serenade of a Spectre’ is both sardonic, lighter-textured as you’d expect with ghosts, and far more quixotic. It’s as if the penultimate piece drained all possibilities of tragedy from the scenario, and all that’s left is charcoal-rich irony (the kind Goya preferred) and attenuated chromatic heartbreak. There’s also an elegiac vein of tender regret, with a slow diminuendo and seeming chimes at two am.. It is extraordinary, prescient of new things that Granados, translated himself into supposed ghost-hood, could hardly communicate.


It’s worth noting Heinrich Neuhaus, Sviatislav Richter’s great teacher was the dedicatee of the second of Szymanowski’s Masques, which Richter didn’t play. But he did champion the earlier Metopes, well almost. Richter famously refused to play certain movements of works, and whole swathes of the mainstream. His Metopes Op 29 only spans the first two of the trilogy.


Centring on the Odyssey, it’s a work centring on Odysseus’ sexuality more than anything else, which chimes with the Granados. It’s the first piano work of Szymanowski’s early-middle ‘Impressionist’ period – indeed, it ushers it in – dense with Debussy influences, from the flurry of ‘Sirens’ with its repetitive shell-like roar, to the seductive sweep of ‘Calypso’.


‘L’Ile de Sirenes’ starts with languorous filigree work but rises to a glittering evocation of something far more mobile, as if Odysseus were passing the sirens in the ship bound to a mast and yelling for his temporarily deaf shipmates to unbind him, which of course they’d been told not to do and in any case can’t hear him either. Debussy essayed an orchestral texture of his Sirenes back in 1899.


It’s pointless to project narrative into what should be a coherent structural essay in texture, and naturally with an emotional charge at distance. It’s an isle too, of course, a voyage round it. These are mere nodal suggestions.


The texture continually transforms and of the three the first is perhaps the one with the least tonal grounding. Dissonant Scriabin-like textures – particularly the last Piano Sonatas, 8-10 – are readily apparent, with bars flicked into atonal high registers to vanishing-point. You see here too how close Szymanowski and the great Frank Bridge were to each other (and both to Scriabin), particularly from the period 1916-24.


‘Calypso’ with its dance-figure, downwardly descending, still distances with light ironies and stripping veils, is more insistent and more ecstatic. The melodic profile’s more distinct, the phrasing clearer, with the emphasis on an accented opening phrase with the rest trailing. It’s also more prescient of the later Mazurkas than anything around the period: though far more tonally – and texturally ambiguous.


It’s worth exploring ‘Nausicaa’. Nausicaa was more lovelorn, mischievously arrowed by Cupid to fall in love with and help Odysseus return to Ithaca (via her regal parents) but getting nothing back, not even a night. She’s young for a start. But it’s possible Odysseus returns her love, for of all the women he encounters, he never mentions her to his wife Penelope. Just as well, for he honoured Nausicaa’s feelings that she’d like to marry a man like Odysseus. He made it possible for her to marry his son Telemachus.


This perhaps impacts on the veiled sotto voce elements, the dying fall, the continual back-grounding of primary textures, till it vanishes in a final diminuendo. It starts like ‘Calypso’ with a recognizable dance figure, and for a while seems to build to something promising. But it suddenly halts, cascades down in rivulets of glissandi, starts up again insistently. It’s a tiny bit like Ravel’s Scarbo from Gaspard, and vanishes. There’s no adequate analogue to process this haunting piece: it was too evanescent for Richter apparently.


Powell’s way is always to emphasize all textures, not to over-filigree and create for its own sake vanishing-points of any kind of material. Lovingly terraced but wholly audible, more passionate that some interpreters, he’s more direct and in way more like the way the composer might have played these works.


His way then with the two late Mazurkas Op 62 (1933-34, Szymanowski’s last composition) is refreshingly direct. The first is slant from the mazurka form, elusive, teasing but lightly ironic. The second has a more distinct melodic profile. And a bit more like the mazurka form Szymanowski was here almost dissolving like a pearl in liquid.


Born in 1968, the Spanish composer Gabriel Erkoreka’s a name new to me, though one of the best-known of his generation. His 2019 Ballade No. 2 In Memoriam Edgard Varese is an extraordinary work difficult to grasp on first hearing. One tried imagining fragments reduced the breakthrough 1920s works of the extraordinary composer who ended with electronic experiments – indeed he pioneered these in the 1930s. Amériques (1922) is a brave new world full of police sirens and the excitement of a soundworld full of infinite potential (‘tis new to thee’ he might have later said of himself); there’s rich glossing here.


There’s Arkana (1925) too, a more formally coherent and more rigorously atonal work and I wonder if there’s quotes from this, or a riff from elements of it at least. It’s a homage to Paracelsus with seven ascending stars of alchemy and an eighth hidden star. The kind of thing Sorabji ate with his preludes. I imagine filigree bits filtering and try to grasp any musical form. It’s not easy. There’s possibly other works like Octandre a chamber-sized work from 1923, more easily digestible; and particularly Density 21.5 for Solo Flute from 1936 rev. 1946. It’s simple in texture and popular. Yes it should be encored and you might grasp it then.


Masques Op 34 from 1915-16 enjoys slightly harder profiles, as befits its subject: ‘Schérhérazade’ is tangy with oriental harmonics and dissonance – this naturally falling across the highly-perfumed understanding of western music. After a more tonally centred opening the piece soon develops a sustained pedal slow movement riven with tremolos and a sudden ecstatic stabs and the memorable material returning. This ripples throughout. There’s a climactic point over nine minutes in where it seems to burst into near-orchestral sonorities. Powell doesn’t hold back with these either.


Szymanowski foregrounds more material, in Masques it seems than previously. There’s an emphatic strut and far more again of the ‘Scarbo’ about this, but also of the alter Szyamnowski, the kind of harmonies one sees in late orchestral works like the Ballet Harnassie Op 55, the Symphonie Concertante Op 60 (a kind of Symphony 4/Piano Concerto combo, like Bax’s Winter Legends, also in essence a Fourth Symphony/Piano Concerto and initially dedicated to Szymanowski). One says this because the next work after Masques was the Violin Concerto, No. 1, a far more gently rapt work but again with earthier conclusions.


‘Tantris de bouffon’ dedicated to Neuhaus is a more querulous, eldritch work: a parody of Tristan and Isolde it heralds the grotesque in piquant percussive drones set against a right hand pentatonic melody to set teeth on edge, deliciously though. Powell emphasises its robust dissent and underlines the passion.


This truculent note continues with ‘Sérenade de Don Juan’ a male seduction to balance the female. Powell relishes this essay on flamenco rhythms and Spanish melodies filtered through Impressionism, particularly Debussy and above all Ravel. It’s memorable, punchy, with an almost insolent casual come-on about it. With a few melting paragraphs. Powell raises this though to a hint at nonchalant mortality.


His two Mompou encores from Suburbias came one after another with more insistent applause. The first is a delicate though more robust-than-normal Mompou, difficult to lace and reminding us that Mompou isn’t all delicate silences between curled question-marks of phrasing. The second s even more attractive, more emphatic. Fine rare send-offs. A stunning world-class recital.